Category Archives: Ephemera

A Holiday for All Presidents?

Further proof that the trend of combining different commemorations into banker’s holidays… is truly foolish, look no further than Thomas Jefferson.

April 13, 1743- Just another day…


Upon entering the executive mansion… citizens began petitioning him for the use of his birthday as a holiday, he gently reminded them,   ‘The only birthday I ever commemorate, is that of our Independence, the Fourth of July.’  


When a formal request arrived from the Mayor of Boston… Jefferson explained it like this,   ” it is clear, disapproving myself of transferring the honors and veneration for the great birthday of our republic to any individual, or of dividing them with individuals, I have declined letting my own birthday be known, and have engaged my family not to communicate it.  This has been the uniform answer to every application of the kind.” 

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Great American Duels #2

Challenger: James Barron-  Former Commodore, United States Navy

Challenged: Stephen Decatur-  Commodore, Commissioner, United States Navy

The Offense:  James Barron was court martialed for his poor handling of the USS Chesapeake during the confrontation with the HMS Leopard in 1807.  Decatur served on the court and recommended Barron be barred from command for five years.  Barron spent those five years in Denmark composing a lengthy defense of his actions.  Upon his return, he applied for reinstatement to Naval command.  Decatur was one of many officers who opposed Barron’s reentry into the service.  Long jealous of Decatur’s fame, Barron singled out his younger rival and challenged him to a duel. 

Relegated to historical obscurity

Background:  Stephen Decatur’s naval career was marked by acts of heroism and exceptional performance under fire.  He was the youngest man in naval history to reach the rank of Captain and distinguished himself in the first and second Barbary Wars.  His stunning victories early in the War of 1812 helped keep morale high during some of the darker days of the conflict.  These exploits established him as one of country’s first heroes and earned the resentment of many fellow officers.   James Barron served without much distinction along side Decatur, rising to the rank of Commodore by 1812.  Barron’s failure to properly oppose the boarding action of the HMS Leopard cost him his commission.  Decatur’s position on the court-martial, as well as his vocal opposition to Barron’s reinstatement led to the duel.  By 1820, dueling was such a problem for the US Navy’s officer corps, there was actually a shortage of properly trained commanders.  

A life most bold and daring….

The Field of Honor:  March 22, 1820–Neither Second in the duel was a suitable choice, for both men wanted to see Stephen Decatur dead.  Barron’s Second was the unpredictable Jesse Elliott, an officer known for his burning ambition and hatred of Decatur.  Commodore William Bainbridge was chosen by Decatur, which was an unfortunate decision.  Bainbridge blamed Decatur for stealing his command during the second Barbary War.  The Seconds negotiated a deadly eight pace turn, guaranteeing bloodshed.  Decatur, a crack shot, did not plan on killing his challenger and made it known in the negotiations.  It is doubtful  either Second mentioned this to Barron.  The count was given by Bainbridge, shots had to be fired after ‘one’ and before ‘three’.  The duelists fired before ‘two’  and both went down with serious wounds.  Barron was struck in the lower abdomen but would survive.  Decatur was hit through the pelvis, severing three arteries, sealing his fate.  Decatur cried out, “Oh Lord, I’m a dead man!”   Barron answered back, “I forgive you, God bless you Decatur!”    The hero’s  funeral was attended by every member of Congress, the entire Supreme Court, President James Monroe, and over 10,000 citizens. 

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Too Far Too Fast

The Warren Court had made a habit… out of rewriting Constitutional law.  Landmark civil rights cases such as Baker vs. Carr and Brown v. Board of Education drastically altered the segregated South, while Engel vs. Vitale and Griswold vs. Connecticut would fuel the culture wars for decades to come.  It was the criminal procedure mandates handed down by Earl Warren that have drawn his court’s legacy into question.  Brady vs. Maryland, Gideon vs. Wainwright, and  Escobedo vs. Illinois radically altered due process and police procedure, some argue to the detriment of law enforcement.  No other case symbolizes the Warren Court’s activism better than Miranda vs. Arizona, handed down on June 13, 1966.

Legislating from the bench

Few cases are as misunderstood…and detested as the ‘Miranda’ ruling.  The basic holding was that due process begins when a suspect is taken into custody, not when they enter legal proceedings.  Warren was not satisfied with a simple procedural question, taking the decision to the Constitutional level-

The person in custody must, prior to interrogation, be clearly informed that he has the right to remain silent, and that anything he says will be used against him in court; he must be clearly informed that he has the right to consult with a lawyer and to have the lawyer with him during interrogation, and that, if he is indigent, a lawyer will be appointed to represent him.

“The Court is not a general haven for reform movements”.[

 It was now the responsibility of the state to inform the citizens of their 5th and 6th amendment protections The Warren Court was deeply divided in delivering a 5-4 decision.  Justice John Marshall Harlan did not approve of Warren’s reach, “nothing in the letter or the spirit of the Constitution or in the precedents squares with the heavy-handed and one-sided action that is so precipitously taken by the Court in the name of fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities….This Court is forever adding new stories to the temples of constitutional law, and the temples have a way of collapsing when one story too many is added.”    

Civil libertarians argue the technical risks of freeing criminals …is worth the protections the opinions offer, but Justice Byron White could not concur, “I have no desire whatsoever to share the responsibility for any such impact on the present criminal process. In some unknown number of cases, the Court’s rule will return a killer, a rapist or other criminal to the streets and to the environment which produced him, to repeat his crime whenever it pleases him. As a consequence, there will not be a gain, but a loss, in human dignity.”


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Facts in Five

Jefferson : Foreign Policy edition

  • First War on Terror-  Jefferson never supported large standing armies until he was forced to send a fleet to the Mediterranean and Marines to the shores of Tripoli  in 1801.  Jefferson signed the bill creating the US Military academy at West Point.
  • Deal for the ages-  Always a strict constructionist, Jefferson quickly altered his interpretation of the Constitution when the French government offered the Louisiana territory for three cents an acre.  No nation had ever purchased an empire. 
  • Getting a jump on things-  Before the ink was dry on the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson had commissioned the Lewis and Clark expedition.  The Corps of Discovery were to explore the Northwest Passage and lay claim to land on the Pacific coast.
  • Snake in the Grass-  Frustrated by his rejections in the political circles of Washington and New York, Vice-President Aaron Burr organized a private militia and openly spoke of organizing the Louisiana Territory into an independent state.  Jefferson called out the troops and had Burr arrested for treason. 
Commander-in-Chief when needs be

Commander-in-Chief when needs be

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Happy Birthday Uncle Billy

William T. Sherman was born on this day… in 1820.  Reviled by southerners to this day, nonetheless, Sherman stands as an American military icon.  His doctrine of total war has been tossed aside as an aberration, American military personnel have been paying the steep price for ‘partial war’ ever since.  Sherman realized that fighting a war in enemy territory meant not only facing the rival combatants, but also the hostile populace as well.  Sherman knew an army had to ‘Go Roman’ or go home, ” You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it”   

“My aim then was to whip the rebels, to humble their pride, to follow them to their inmost recesses, and make them fear and dread us”


Sherman also hated politics and never blurred the line… between civilian and military authority,  “The carping and bickering of political factions in the nation’s capital reminds me of two pelicans quarreling over a dead fish.”   Several efforts were made to get Sherman onto a presidential ticket following the war, but he always resisted.  Unlike many of his peers, Sherman accepted his place as a soldier,  “I hereby state, and mean all that I say, that I never have been and never will be a candidate for President; that if nominated by either party, I should peremptorily decline; and even if unanimously elected I should decline to serve.”   

This proclamation has been quoted by politicians from Lyndon Johnson to Dick Cheney.


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Conspiracies are Hatched

“There can be no middle ground here. We shall have to take the responsibility for world collaboration, or we shall have to bear the responsibility for another world conflict.”  … Roosevelt’s words ring hollow through history considering what happened after Yalta.  Congress agreed with FDR’s assessment of the Crimean accords, but the next world conflict was already under way.  Historians have tried to connect the dots over the last 69 years- many connections have yet to be convincingly made…conspiracy has filled the voids.  

"Of course I believe in a free Poland...come now, let's smoke"

“Of course I believe in a free Poland…come now, let’s smoke”

Stalin clearly benefited from the agreement… as much of the groundwork for the Eastern Bloc was laid during the negotiations.  How could Roosevelt and Churchill  allow Stalin to have his way on a majority of the issues?  If we believe Churchill’s self-described deference to Roosevelt,  something(or someone) influenced the decision making.  Questions about FDR’s health are at the source of many conspiracies:   Was he too weak to deal with the diplomatic rigors? Did knowledge of his mortality cloud his judgement during negotiations? Was he willing to grant a great deal to Stalin to secure what he considered to be his legacy, the United Nations?    The lack of written evidence, combined with basic deduction has led many an amateur historian down the conspiratorial path.

Liberal hero; Soviet spy- ALES

Liberal hero; Soviet spy- ALES

Most historians now concede that Alger Hiss… was not simply an American Communist, but in fact, a Soviet agent.   Hiss was a member of the US delegation to Yalta.  He arranged some of the papers used during the negotiations.  Conspiracy theorists do not have to leap too far in linking Hiss to the outcome at Yalta.  Records indicate that Hiss had a minor role(at best) during the negotiations.  But, to conspiracy theorists, lack of written evidence is never a deterrent.


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Uncle Joe’s Big Week

“It was not a question of what we would let the Russians do, but what we could get the Russians to do.”   Future Secretary of State James Byrnes commented on the Yalta conference which began on February 4, 1945.

The exhausted three

The exhausted three

Most historians now agree that Yalta… is where Stalin exerted his will upon the European continent.  Theories abound as to how this came to pass- Roosevelt’s illness, Churchill’s weariness, Soviet agents posing as American diplomats (Alger Hiss)- regardless, the Soviet Union came out of the conference a world power.  Byrnes’ observation was optimistic to say the least…


What seemed at the time to be reasonable compromise… laid the foundations for the Eastern Bloc.

Iron Curtain descending

Iron Curtain descending

  • Free elections in Poland- clearly stacked in Stalin’s favor, the exiled Polish government in London stood little chance against the Provisional Communist state built by the Red Army in 1945.
  • Red Army occupation of eastern and central Europe was accepted- and despite assurances to Churchill of peaceful intentions, Stalin told Molotov, “Never mind. We’ll do it our own way later.”
  • The Red Army would occupy half of Germany including the entirety of Berlin. The seeds of the Cold War are planted out of what was thought to be military expediency.

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